Take one step into any indoor agriculture convention or expo and you will immediately see how the industry has transformed over the past several decades. With new products and devices that claim to solve each and every problem you may have, from drones running your IPM to AI software managing climate controls, the options and solutions can seem to be endless. As a new grower or even a seasoned grower, how can you make the best decision on what to invest in, or what to avoid? What trends should you buy into and what trends are just that, trends? Who can you trust when it comes to the advice you get from sellers, vendors and manufacturers? While there may be no straight forward answer to those questions there are some key concepts to help you navigate through making those decisions.
Know Your Partners
First and foremost, know your partners! Create lasting partnerships with service providers and brands that you trust, as they will be pivotal to prolonged success. CropKing has been in the controlled environment agriculture industry for 40+ years, developing hydroponic systems, manufacturing greenhouses and advising our customers as they build their operations. Be diligent when creating relationships with the companies you work with. Ask questions, look for reviews or references and examine their history. You want to know they have your best interests in mind, are reliable, have a good reputation in the industry, and aren’t going to sell you something and then disappear. While every good salesperson’s job is to sell you something, a great salesperson will only sell you what you need.
Know What You Don’t Know
It’s easy to be sold a product or technology that you don’t need if you don’t have enough knowledge about the topic. If you’re looking into a new fertilizer program, brush up on your water chemistry skills. It may be beneficial to attend plant nutrition courses which can often be found online from reputable sources. Reach out to your product suppliers or manufactures and ask if they offer onsite training or troubleshooting. If you’re looking into a new technology, ask for references. Visit the facility if possible and get firsthand feedback from other growers.
Keep in mind if it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. In the digital age there are countless companies out there with flashy advertising, well put together websites and promotional marketing, and while that can often be a sign of a reputable company it isn’t necessarily always the case. Experience, proven track record and integrity are the cornerstones of a fruitful working relationship. There is no magic elixir or elite piece of equipment that will guarantee your plants success. Don’t be afraid to ask hard hitting questions of your sales representatives. If they cite studies or provide performance numbers, ask to see the data. Check if the information has been verified by third party testing. Ask about the mainstream view on the product or service and finally ask yourself if the product is the best option for your situation. For example, running supplemental CO2 can have dramatic positive effects on the health and growth rates of your plants, so fitting your environment with CO2 can be a great idea. However not every case is the same, for a sealed indoor grow facility CO2 can be a great option, for a greenhouse that exchanges fresh air every few minutes CO2 is not very effective at all.
When talking to experts, look for someone with a track record of success in controlled environment agriculture. Not every project is the same, not every need is the same, and not every solution is the same. At the end of the day the number one driving factor in what you invest in will lie in the specifics of your operation. Does a 5,000 sqft greenhouse need an IPM drone? No. For a greenhouse of that size, IPM is best done with a skilled worker that is well-trained and efficient with the task at hand. A much larger operation with acres of field crops to monitor may find the use of a drone more practical. Keep in mind what you may gain in speed and convenience, you may lack in quality or precision. All these factors must be weighed out. Should a five-acre greenhouse be watering by hand? Again, the answer is most likely no. In some cases, your improvements may lead to both financial savings and better quality and precision. Hand watering 20,000 plants every day is not only a large labor draw, but it also leaves room for inconsistencies and errors. Switching to an automated fertigation system is almost always a better option. Your labor can be decreased by as much as 90%, along with water savings and overall better control of your fertigation and plant health.
Lowering the cost of production is one of the goals of efficiency. This can be a result of lowering labor costs, decreasing energy bills, or increasing yields and lowering water usage. If you’re looking for efficiency, carefully consider each scenario with thought and foresight. If a $20k climate control unit can save you 30% on your annual heating costs, is it worth it? The short answer is that It depends on your heating costs. Is a $400/gallon nutrient additive that gains you 3% increase in yield worth it? Again, it depends on what that 3% of extra yield is worth minus any additional labor or inputs to apply the product. While this seems intuitive, you only need to look at the recent rash of closures and bankruptcies to see that it maybe isn’t as intuitive as it seems. Efficient and profitable growing operations get by with as little as they need to accomplish what they want. This is done to save money, but also to remain simple in operation. A simple process is one way to decrease labor costs, and it is also easy to replicate and train on.
One of the biggest mistakes a grower can make is to implement too many changes at once. A reputable industry partner will assist you in developing that plan, bringing their experience to help you avoid costly mistakes or over-investment. For example, you may not want to implement a new fertilizer program at the same time as a new lighting schedule goes into effect. You may see a positive move from your crop, but you also lose the ability to know which had more impact, the fertilizer or lighting schedule. Same goes for plant nutrition. If you apply four different foliar sprays, how will you know which one was more effective? Proper data should always be collected when any new changes take place.
By building relationships with experienced industry companies and service providers, you can avoid the pitfalls of business that result in closures, bankruptcies and even lawsuits. A reputable partner like CropKing will help you identify the technologies, growing systems, and structures that will fit your needs and goals, while also helping you weed through the trendy companies with no staying potential.
Paul Brentlinger is a second generation owner of CropKing Inc and has 20+ years of experience working with controlled environment agriculture growers all over the world.He has studied best-of-breed controlled environment and hydroponic practices across the globe to apply the most efficient and cost-effective practices into optimal systems for CropKing customers.Paul leads the CropKing teams in consulting, sales and management, providing solutions for growers in the produce & cannabis spaces.